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International students at TMU say they are at an employment disadvantage

By Krishika Jethani

International students at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) who hold study permits fear for their financial wellbeing due to restrictions placed on the hours they can work.

Full-time international students who obtain a study permit are limited to working 20 hours per week when school is in session.

An exception was made from mid-November 2022 to the end of this upcoming December to combat labour shortages. This allows students to work for longer than 20 hours if they meet certain requirements.

These restrictions can feed into more widespread exploitation that foreign workers, including international students, face in the Canadian workplace.

Alessandra Baltodano, an international third-year creative industries student at TMU, feels employers take advantage of immigrants and students who are not fully aware of all the working laws in Canada.

During her first year in Canada, Baltodano accepted a position which paid well below minimum wage.

“I think it was like $8 per hour or something like that,” she said. “When I brought it forward with my employer, [they reacted] very poorly to it. And I just felt that it was some employers trying to take advantage of international students that don’t know better.”

When Baltodano first arrived here in 2021, the minimum hourly wage in Ontario was set to $14.25, with Canada implementing a $15 minimum wage in December 2021.

“I think we should be allowed to work because being an international student is expensive and the city’s expensive”

Sarom Rho, an organizer at Migrant Workers Alliance for Change—an organization that seeks to “support migrants to stand up against bad bosses and fix problems with immigration,” according to its website—is calling for permanent residency status for all.

“Today, there are 1.7 million migrants and undocumented people in Canada,” said Rho. “Current and former international students as well as undocumented refugees and undocumented people do the frontline essential work that keeps our communities nourished and sustained.”

According to the Government of Canada website, academic sources estimate that 20,000 to 500,000 undocumented people were living in Canada in 2022.

The website also states that approximately 599,300 work permits were issued in 2021, while Statista reports that over 800,000 individuals held study permits in 2022.

Tomoya Obokata, a United Nations Special Rapporteur declared ways “contemporary forms of slavery” are seen on work permit limitations for foreign workers after his 14-day visit to the country. Like Rho, he hopes for the end of the closed work permit system.

Giulianna Saucedo, an international fourth-year creative industries student at TMU, thinks the aforementioned exception made by the Canadian government in November 2022 should be in place all the time.

“I think we should be allowed to work because being an international student is expensive and the city’s expensive,” she said.

Baltodano said creating more bursaries and scholarships for international students would be “really useful.”

“There’s so few and they are so competitive to get. There should be more [grade point average], merit-based scholarships and bursaries as well, because there’s only an emergency bursary,” she said.

Through the AwardSpring platform, TMU offers various bursaries and scholarships for international students, including the International Student Emergency Bursary for those who are experiencing “unanticipated financial need.”

Baltodano once applied for an emergency bursary from TMU but was denied since her situation was “anticipated” and not “reactive.”

Baltodano’s father lost his job, causing her family financial hardship. “The only solution that [TMU] gave me was that I could pay [tuition] in installments with interest,” she said.

The Eyeopener reached out to the school for comment but did not receive a response before printing.

“It makes me feel anxious about whether I’m going to be able to earn enough money to afford living here”

John Isbister, a professor in the department of economics at TMU, said migrant workers are trapped with their initial employer with little ability to change jobs, putting them at a “terrible disadvantage.”

Rho highlighted how 20 months ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised equality and fairness to ensure permanent resident status for all, including undocumented people, migrant workers and students.

“It’s the only mechanism to ensure that people can speak up and leave bad jobs, to get health care, life saving health care, to study and work here with full protections and to simply be with our family or friends and our loved ones without fear of deportation,” said Rho.

She said it’s “powerful” to see current and former international students uniting with migrant workers and refugees to “fight for our rights and dignity together.”

However, Isbister does not think restrictions on international students are “nearly as bad” as they are for foreign workers.

According to the Government of Canada website, changing jobs requires migrant workers to apply for an entirely new work permit, thus throwing much uncertainty and risk into the process.

“When [international students are] first approved to come into the country, they’re not approved as workers, they’re approved as students,” he said. “It’s a whole different process and the criteria are quite different. So, I don’t think it’s an outrage that their ability to work is restricted in some way.”

According to Isbister, the main way that students are being “exploited” is through high tuition fees in comparison to Canadian students.

Baltodano said the limitation of work hours and high cost of living has caused her stress and anxiety.

“It makes me feel anxious about whether I’m going to be able to earn enough money to afford living here in Toronto while also being a student,” she said. “It has definitely been a huge stress factor.”

Baltodano also said a lot of people, including herself, are relying on being able to work a few extra hours to “sustain themselves economically here in Canada.”

Although Saucedo has never experienced “exploitation per se,” she has noticed that a lot of employers are not familiar with study permit limitations for international students.

In a meeting with The Eye, TMU president Mohamed Lachemi highlighted the Career Boost international program, which employs “more than 100 international students” on campus each year. He said this program ensures that both international and domestic students are “supervised in a respective and fair way.”

Lachemi pointed to TMU’s Job Search Club for those not looking to be employed by Career Boost.

“The Job Search Club for international students in particular gives [students] an opportunity to expand their network, develop [a] career, job search skills and learn how to self-advocate through sessions where they can learn about employment standards and strategy negotiations in Canada,” said Lachemi.

Advocates, like Rho, believe a solution to the exploitation of foreign workers is quite clear.

“There’s a simple solution,” says Rho. “Which is for [Trudeau] to keep the promise he made 20 months ago and ensure full and permanent immigration status for all.”

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